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NEMO Switchback Foam Sleeping Pad Review

NEMO Switchback Sleeping Pad Review

The NEMO Switchback is a accordion-style closed-cell foam sleeping pad that can be used as an ultralight pad by itself or to augment the warmth of a second sleeping pad, when sleeping outdoors in colder weather. It’s quite similar to the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol sleeping pad, but made with modern materials and precisely molded. Like the Z Lite Sol, one side of the pad is coated with aluminum to reflect your body heat back at you and keep you warmer.

Specs at a Glance

  • Type: Closed-Cell Foam
  • R-Value: Not Available from manufacturer (estimated at 2)
  • Manufacturer Temperature Rating: 20 F / -7 C
  • Thickness: 0.9 in / 2.3 cm
  • Weight: 14.5 oz / 415 g
  • Length x width: 72 x 20 in / 183 cm x 51 cm
  • Packed Size: 5 x 5.5 x 20 in / 13 x 14 x 51 cm
  • Color: Pumpkin

If you’ve never owned an accordion-style foam pad, they’re a useful piece of backpack gear to have around because they can serve so many purposes. I’ve used them as virtual frames in frameless backpacks, extra insulation under an inflatable sleeping pad, sit pads to keep my bum warm and dry, hammock insulation, winter stove insulation, hot water bottle insulation, insulated seats for pack rafts, even as shims to keep air conditioners from falling out of windows. You just need a sharp pair of scissors and your imagination to figure out ways to use them.

The Switchback (right) folds up more compactly than a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite even though they both have 14 panels and are 72" long.
The Switchback (right) folds up more compactly than a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite (left) even though they both have 14 panels and are 72″ long.

What makes the Switchback Different?

The Switchback’s main competitor is the legendary Therm-a-Rest Z Lite sleeping pad. That accordion-style foam sleeping pad has been around for as long as I can remember. The Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol is coated on one side with an aluminum film like the Switchback.

The Switchback takes everything that’s good about that pad and makes it better. Well, almost everything. The Switchback is a bit thicker, for instance, measuring 0.9 inches thick compared to the Z Lite Sol’s 0.75 inch thickness. It also weighs about a half ounce more at 14.5 oz, compared to the Z Lite Sol, which weighs 14 oz. Despite that, the Switchback folds up more compactly because the raised portions of the pad slot in better with the recessed areas. This makes it easier to strap to the side of your backpack or under a floating lid.

The Switchback is also a good deal more comfortable than a Z Lite Sol, perhaps enough to convince you to switch from an inflatable pad to a foam pad again. NEMO uses two types of foam in the Switchback, a softer foam that comes in contact with your body and a more durable foam that reduces pad compression over time, while Therm-a-Rest uses just one type of foam in the Z Lite Sol. Both pads are also comparable in price: a 72″ NEMO Switchback retails for $50, while the regular length Z Lite Sol costs $45, and is available in a variety of lengths.

The Switchback (bottom) has a very different pattern of peaks and valleys than the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol
The Switchback (bottom) has a very different pattern of peaks and valleys than the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (top).

Temperature Ratings vs R-values

The biggest difference between the NEMO Switchback and the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol pads is in how they’re rated in term of insulation value. Therm-a-Rest rates their sleeping pads using R-values which are well understood by backpackers. For example, an R-value of 2-3 is good for 3 season use, while an R-value of 5-6 is good for sleeping on snow. Sleeping pad R-values are also additive, so you can stack two sleeping pads to create enough insulation to sleep on snow in winter.

While the method used to measure R-values varies somewhat between manufacturers and testing labs, a new outdoor industry standard is likely due out in 2020 (according to my well-informed sources) that will standardize the testing process and it make it possible for consumers to compare sleeping pad R-values across manufacturers. It will also force manufacturers to re-rate or redesign their products so they match their marketing claims, much like the process that occurred when standard sleeping bag temperature ratings were introduced.

Both the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (top) and the Switchback (bottom) have an aluminum coating that reflect your body heat back at you.
Both the Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol (top) and the Switchback (bottom) have an aluminum coating that reflect your body heat back at you.

NEMO doesn’t use R-values to rate their sleeping pads, including the Switchback. Instead, they assign the Switchback a 20 degree temperature rating, which makes it quite difficult to compare it with other sleeping pads that are rated using R-values. It also raises a number of questions about how the temperature rating should be interpreted.

For example:

  • Is the 20 degree temperature rating a measure of air temperature or ground temperature? There’s a big difference.
  • Is the 20 degree rating the same for men and women, who are known to sleep colder than men?
  • Are sleeping pad temperature ratings additive, like R-values? For example, will two sleeping pads rated for 20 degree temperatures provide sufficient insulation to sleep in minus 20 below zero (F) weather?
  • What kind of guidance does a temperature rating provide you if you want to combine the Switchback with an inflatable sleeping pad for cold weather use that has an R-value, but not a temperature rating?
  • How is the 20 degree rating calculated? Is it based on a automated testing procedure or by human observation in a cold room, where individual differences in sex or physique could skew the results.

In the absence of an R-value for the Switchback, it’s difficult to assess NEMO’s claim that it is the warmest closed-cell foam sleeping pad made. If you do buy the Switchback, my conservative guess is that it has an R-value in the range of 2-2.5, which is pretty standard for closed-cell foam pads.

The Switchback is only available in a pumpkin-like color. Too bad. It would have been even more useful in blaze orange.
The Switchback is only available in a pumpkin-like color. Too bad. It would have been even more useful in blaze orange.

Recommendation

The NEMO Switchback is actually a well-engineered and very comfortable closed-cell foam sleeping pad, despite its lack of an R-value rating. While it’s not as comfortable as an inflatable sleeping pad, it is definitely a step up from a Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sol in terms of design, manufacturing, and materials. It’s really about time that someone went head-to-head with Therm-a-Rest when it comes to closed-cell foam sleeping pads. While the NEMO Switchback is in many respects a knock-off of the Z Lite Sol, it is a better knock-off, which is a pretty impressive feat, if you think about the engineering and design that goes into making high quality foam products on an industrial scale.

Disclosure: NEMO provided the author with a sleeping pad for this review.

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Last updated: 2018-10-18 22:28:17
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25 comments

  1. I love the simplicity and dependability of using a CCF pad, but as a side sleeping I just can’t get comfortable. Hopefully this NEMO pad will spark some competition in the world of foam pads and we’ll see some innovation over the next few years.

    • I don’t see the point actually. The world has moved to inflatable pads. Foam pads are a niche product and a commodity.

      • I think with innovation that foam pads could compete with inflatables on comfort. If that happens, foam pads would have the additional advantages of being far less fragile and requiring no inflation or deflation

      • One important niche is youth backpacking. Foam pads need almost no care and stand up to lots of abuse.

        Tonight I’m teaching a session on gear for youth at Scout leader training. I will strongly recommend the Z-fold pads for youth.

      • I prefer CCF for mild weather hammock camping. It beats a quilt or inflatable IMO.

      • Good point. I sprung for a 40 degree synth UQ, but use to use a foam pad too.

  2. Hi Philip, is’t comfortable enough for side sleeper ?

    • Absolutely not. Unless you sleep on your back.

    • Let me add my two cents to what Philip wrote. I’m a side sleeper, and I’m using combination of Zlite SOL and Klymit O-zone (inflatable), this is VERY comfortable. You probably can make Swithchback work the same way.

      Here is the details… Zlite goes on the top of Ozone (aluminum side up), pillow from Ozone folds on the top of Zlite. So Zlite ends up clamped down between Ozone “body” and “pillow”, it does not slip anywhere (even when sleeping on a slope!). I trimmed two sections from Ozone with hot iron, this saves weight (310g vs 369g actual weight) and removes pressure point at your hip (you want lower end of Ozone above your knee, not below). You want Ozone slightly deflated for softness – I usually inflate it to maximum than open valve on 1-2 seconds to let some air out. I’m using garbage bag with some nitrile rubber band to inflate Ozone, so total system weight is Zlite SOL + Ozone + “inflator” = 402g+310g+31g = 743g. I’m 6’2”, 200-210lb, quilt user, and I like this “Z-ozone” a lot (I’ve tried 5-6 other options).

      Let’s compare Z-ozone with Therm-a-rest NeoAir Xtherm system (this is second best system I own, 594g weight for my Xtherm large, standard size is too narrow for me). I’ll add pillow (Aeros Regular 85g) and seat pad (Zseat, 60g) to it – because I could not sleep without pillow and I need seat pad if I do not bring Zlite. I’ll also add Therm-a-rest Mini Pump with NiMh batterers (74g) – it’s too much work to inflate large Xtherm otherwise, and even with this pump I deploy Z-ozone faster (and pack twice faster!). Total weight is 813g, Xtherm system is 70g heavier (it is possible to built lighter inflatable-only system but I’m not aiming for it). R-value for Xtherm is 5.7, but you need to inflate it to maximum to get that, and it is like sleeping on wooden board. When you deflate it to be soft enough for side sleeping, R-value is less… On ~40F dense ground I’m getting a cold spot under my hip with “soft inflation”… It can be prevented by putting Zseat under Xtherm, but with Z-ozone I NEVER get cold spots in the same conditions… In defense of Xtherm it is intended for sleeping on the snow, it will work for it and Z-ozone will not. Comfort. I’m sleeping under quilt, so how nice mattress surface feels is critical, and Zlite surface is much nicer then Xtherm. Aeros pillow is nicer then one on Ozone, but Ozone pillow does not move anywhere – and I hate waking up at night because my pillow fall off the mattress. And for seating bring Zlite is way nicer than small Zseat. Z-ozone comfort is better for me. Noise… Z-ozone is significantly quieter then Xtherm. Robustness… If I puncture Xtherm, I’ll have only Zseat to survive, if I puncture Ozone – I still have indestructible Zlite. Cost… If you compare based on MSRP – Z-ozone will be around 3 times cheaper, and if you look for discounts – it will be even more (I bought Ozone for $36 and “irregular” normal size Zlite SOL for $15).

  3. Great review as always Phillip!

    My sleep system includes an inflatable and a z pad. Reasons:
    – If my inflatable leaks I still have a thermal barrier.
    – The foam pad protects my inflatable.
    – Added comfort and better insulated in cold weather.
    – When I take a break my foam pad is quickly deployed to sit on or stretch out and take a nap.

    My zpad is about ready to retire so the NEMO looks like my next purchase.

  4. I’m a side sleeper that absolutely loves sleeping on CCF pads. I much prefer being ‘grounded’ as it were and not on durable pool floaties. I need a fresh pad for next year so I’d like to check out the switchback. Honestly though NEMO can get outta town with their cockamamie rating system. I hope this is eventually standardized and enforced in the way you’ve described.

  5. Mine arrived today. Seems like a really nice product!

  6. I have a Z Lite that was Army surplus from the Lewis and Clark expedition. Back problems prevent me from sleeping on it but my granddaughter likes it. It’s also useful as a pad for when I crawl under the RV to reattach those pieces that seem to fall off in hundred dollar chunks.

    I may give this Switchback a try and donate the Z Lite to the Smithsonian institution.

  7. Philip, you make some really great points about the use of a temperature rating instead of an R value. I get the sense that NEMO is trying to dumb down sleeping pad selection. A shame they need to resort to smoke and mirrors to get sales instead of competing with thermarest head to head.

  8. Philip, great review! Thank you for reviewing this non-trendy “niche products”! From your other reviews I have impression you are using Zlite pads a lot. Could you please clarify some things about this Nemo pad vs Zlite?
    1) You wrote you estimate R-value for Switchback at 2-2.5. Zlite SOL R-value is 2.6. Does it mean you have an impression that Switchback is not as warm as Zlite?
    2) Is it correct Switchback has aluminum on the bottom (which is wrong side per my understanding of physics)? Could Switchback be used “aluminum side” up, does “aluminum side” feel nice to the touch?
    3) How slippery “aluminum side” is on Switchback compared to Zlite (I’m thinking about sleeping on a slope)?

    • 1. It was just a ball park estimate. No comparison implied. I doubt anyone can feel a 0.1 difference in R value anyway.

      2. There is no top or bottom. Just an aluminum side and non-aluminum one. You’d sleep on the aluminum surface for max body heat reflectivity.

      3. I can’t feel any difference in slipperiness.

  9. your Amazon link is for a kids jacket

  10. I have a 3/8 inch pad from Alps Mountaineering. I cut it down to 15 inches by 6 foot and it is 7.15 ounces. That works for me as a side sleeper. I use this for local hiking but for the AT where I often sleep in shelters I use a 5/8 inch Ridge Rest that is also cut down to 15 inches by 6 foot, 9.2 ounces. I like the simplicity and it works better for me as a side sleeper. I’ve carried a half length before but I think I’m settling down with full 6 foot length even for my 5’6″ short self.
    Thanks for the great Blog/Newsletter/site!

  11. I’m a side, back, and tummy sleeper, and no way can this 51-year-old guy side sleep on anything under a 4″ inflatable. But I applaud this product and would love to see a 2″ version. If one buys a slightly larger pack it could fit inside.

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